Iain McGilchrist was not the only speaker at the Young Priest Theologians network meeting (for posts on McGilchrist see this and this), the other was Sam Wells, who is actually a bit of a hero of mine…but that’s by the by. I found Wells as challenging as I found McGilchrist interesting.
Wells began with this question: what is the greatest problem of human existence?
When we look around the world and see violence, hunger, disease, and suffering, I think we can agree with Wells’ summation that mortality seems the greatest problem. So much of the grand project of humanity today is about overcoming our limitations, our mortality. Obviously, this has always been a major problem, but in recent decades a shift has taken place. With advances in science, technology, knowledge and understanding, these limitations no longer seem inevitable – they now appear more like problems to be solved. There is a greater emphasis in medicine to cure, not simply care for, the sick. We celebrate overcoming limitations more than anything else whether it be in olympic/paralympic sports or jumping through the sound barrier or ridding nations of diseases.
This is good! But Wells threw out a challenge for the church. Whilst the human project at the moment is focussed on ‘doing for’ people, is this really the emphasis of God’s call to us?
What is the greatest human problem wasn’t mortality? What if it was isolation?
Wells asked us to imagine a few common scenarios, like buying a birthday present for a family member we’ve grown distant from. We don’t really know what they want or how to close that gap so we end up spending too much on something they probably won’t like. Their face as they open it tells us we were right and we leave their party frustrated. Or inviting all the wider family round for the weekend and stressing in the preparation so that we dominate the kitchen, get angsty with those around and end up spending the weekend fussing over dishes and desserts. We say goodbye lamenting not having actually talked and collapse exhausted. The issue is that ‘doing for’ in these situations doesn’t mend the relationship or allow for community. ‘Doing for’ is laudable, but it leaves many things undone.
What is the Christian hope? Heaven? What is that? Not clouds and harps, but being with God. The whole biblical story is saturated with the central purpose of God with us – Immanuel – the name God took when he came in human form. Creation was about God making us for relationship; the incarnation was Jesus coming as Immanuel to be with us; the last words of Jesus to his disciples were ‘I am with you always’; and the final words of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) are that a time is coming when God will dwell with us for eternity.
Wells challenged us to think whether the mission of the church is to ‘do for’ – to solve the world’s problems – or to ‘be with’ – to be a community of people who will pay the cost of true relationship with others. This is a harder call. ‘Being with’ requires a shaping of our lives around others in a way that ‘doing for’ does not. We can’t simply provide knowledge, technology or money for others – we need to give time, vulnerability, ourselves – without witholding the rest. Yet we see the value in the problems we cannot solve….Christians are called to be those who stand with others even in situations that seem to have no solution.
This isn’t a denial of ‘doing for’. Scripture is clear – love that isn’t practical is no love at all. Yet it strikes me that fundamental to it is a focus shift off ourselves and onto Jesus. If we believe that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that Jesus has already secured a future where the ‘problems are solved’ – a time is coming when there will be no more tears, pain, or suffering – then solving the problem is not our job nor our need. Rather, our mission and call is to show the world that God has come to be one of us and God has done it all, that He is with us in every situation. We show it by living it – living with God and with others – by not avoiding relationship or the difficult conversations needed to deal with past hurts or the giving up of control so we have time to be with others.
There is a huge challenge here, especially in a commuter town like Loughton – how do you give time to be with others when no one has time to be with you? Yet we already see the power of it. Some of the greatest changes I have seen in people’s lives since being in Loughton are amongst those who have come into our Cafe and simply found a place where they are loved and listened to. In this place a deeper change seems to come than in solving someone’s problem alone.